Maldives: Indian troops to exit country as China gains foothold

  • By Anbarasan Ethirajan
  • BBC news

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Maldives President Mohamed Muizzu came to power after a high-stakes ‘India Out’ campaign

India is set to bring back its first batch of military personnel from the Maldives on Sunday as the island moves closer to China.

The phased withdrawal of about 80 Indian troops must meet a May deadline set by President Mohamed Muizzu, who is widely seen as pro-China.

India has said its military personnel were stationed in the Maldives to maintain and operate two rescue and reconnaissance helicopters and a small aircraft it donated years ago. Removing Indian troops was an election promise of Muizzu, who came to power in November.

India has long exerted influence over the Maldives, whose strategic location in its backyard allowed it to monitor a crucial part of the Indian Ocean. But relations between the countries have deteriorated in recent months, partly due to Mr Muizzu’s strong rhetoric against Delhi. It’s a gap that China wants to exploit as Asian powers vie for influence in the region.

Even then, Delhi and Male (the capital of the Maldives) managed to agree that Indian civilian engineering staff would replace military forces to fly the aircraft – the first team has already reached the islands.

“The aircraft will remain in the Maldives and India [civilian] Staff will remain on site to maintain them. So both sides seem to have reached a compromise,” said Shyam Saran, a former Indian foreign minister.

Some in the Maldives see the replacement of troops with civilians as a downgrade by Mr Muizzu after his high-voltage ‘India Out’ campaign.

Mr Muizzu’s office did not respond to requests for comment.

Image caption,

Muizzu went to China for a state visit in January

Some analysts warn that the Maldives, a country of just over half a million people, is at risk of becoming entangled in Asia’s power rivalry.

China has lent well over a billion dollars to the Maldives over the years, mainly for infrastructure and economic development.

Both Beijing and Male cemented their ties into a comprehensive strategic partnership in January when Mr Muizzu went to China on a state visit – he has yet to visit India, unlike previous Maldivian leaders.

Earlier this week, the Maldives government signed a “military assistance” deal with China, which has caused some concern in Delhi.

The Maldivian Ministry of Defense said the deal was “free” (without payment), without giving more details. But at a public meeting on Tuesday, Mr Muizzu said China would offer non-lethal weapons for free and train Maldivian security forces (both India and the US have so far trained the Maldivian military).

“This is unprecedented. It is the first time that the Maldives has signed a defense deal with Beijing to provide military assistance,” Azim Zahir, a Maldivian political analyst, told the BBC.

“We knew Mr. Muizzu would forge closer ties with China in terms of investment and capital, but no one expected him to go this far,” he said.

But Beijing denies there are any long-term military plans in the Maldives.

“It is a normal relationship between two countries. If China wants to have a military presence in the Indian Ocean, it may have better choices than the Maldives,” said Dr Long Xingchun, chairman of the Chengdu Institute of World Affairs think tank.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

The Maldives depends on India for the import of essential food products, medicines and construction materials

Despite Beijing’s promises, many believe that China is moving quickly to take advantage of the previous government, led by President Ibrahim Mohamed Solih, taking an ‘India-first’ approach.

During his election campaign, Muizzu had accused the previous government of failing to make public the fine print of Male’s deals with Delhi. He is now facing similar criticism.

“We do not have details about most of the agreements he signed during his visit to Beijing. Mr Muizzu is no better than the previous government when it comes to making details of such agreements public,” said Zahir.

Last month, Muizzu’s government allowed a Chinese research vessel, the Xiang Yang Hong 3, to dock in Male despite opposition from Delhi. Male argued that it was a port call “for staff rotation and replenishment.”

But that did not convince some Indian experts, who feared it could be a mission to collect data that could later be used by the Chinese military in submarine operations.

Amid ongoing friction in relations, Delhi has inaugurated a new naval base in the Indian archipelago of Lakshadweep, close to the Maldives.

The Indian Navy said the INS Jatayu in Minicoy Island would intensify its efforts in “anti-piracy and anti-narcotics operations in the West Arabian Sea”.

While some have read it as a message to Male, Indian experts say the measure is not a response to current tensions.

“I don’t think this is anything new. As far as I know, this has been in the works for a while,” said Saran, the former Indian diplomat.

Mr Muizzu’s anti-India actions have also alarmed many in his country. The Maldives depends on India for the import of essential food products, medicines and construction materials. After the Covid pandemic, India also sent the highest number of tourists to the Maldives.

But this has changed following a recent controversy that led to a call on social media for Indians to ‘boycott’ the Maldives after some officials made controversial comments about Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The controversy erupted when Mr Muizzu was in Beijing, asking Chinese authorities to send more tourists to regain the country’s top ranking before the pandemic.

Since then, Chinese tourists have been visiting in large numbers. According to data from the Ministry of Tourism, 13% of the nearly 400,000 tourists who visited the Maldives in the first two months of the year were from China. India has dropped to fifth position.

Some also expect Mr Muizzu’s rhetoric to intensify as parliamentary elections approach on April 21 and he seeks a majority in the House of Representatives.

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